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Undertow
Kathryn Aldridge-Morris

Dad and I are the first after the long winter to try the lock gates on the canal, and our small hire boat bobs against the jetty as we survey the debris: a season’s worth of spooled junk, man-made and natural. We stare into the canal from the towpath― two helpless academics hoping if we think about it hard enough a solution will froth up between the branches, beer bottles and petrol cans. I hand him the lock key before it occurs to him to bail on me. There’s a pub not a hundred yards from here.

‘How would I know how to use this?’ he asks.

‘Just have a go. Have a bit of fun with it,’ I say.

‘Fun?’ he says. ‘Do you know the etymology of fun is to cheat or to trick a person?’ I wait for him to repeat himself, as is the wont of professors. ‘The etymology is to –’

‘-cheat or to trick. I heard,’ I say.

When I catch myself repeating stuff at home, my wife will stroke my arm. ‘Honey, you’re not like him,’ she’ll say. But I’ve only been in post a year.

Dad makes as though the lock key has slipped from his hand and the heavy steel clunks onto the towpath. He strides over to the Visitors’ Board. ‘Why we didn’t just meet at The Drunken Duck, I’ll never know,’ he says.

I grab the lock key and fix it to the spindle. As I wind it, the gritted teeth of the steel paddle rise into the air and water seeps from the chamber into the canal. I wait for him to come over and help but he’s immersed in the small print of English canal by-laws.

‘Actually, in Middle English ‘fun’ meant make a fool of,’ I say.

‘Huh,’ he says. ‘You know, your sister took me for a Michelin-starred meal when I went up last month.’

 

‘Is Donna still too busy to come down?’

‘Three-star restaurant it was.’

‘Never known anyone with that many deadlines.’

‘And she was naughty. Bought us all champagne.’

The water sinks and the trunk of an oak downed during recent gales thumps against the gates.

Maybe I have tricked him ―the way I’ve taken to tricking him into conversations at ten in the morning, knowing it’s only then when my words will settle at the bottom of his barrelled-brain. Isn’t this what we do - the children of alcoholics? Trick our parents in those spaces between the sips? Trick them for as long as it takes to get from Bristol to Bath in a battered hire boat with a smoking engine? 

He pulls a half bottle of Scotch from his blazer pocket. Then two plastic tumblers. ‘Dad, really?’

‘I always thought you were more fun than this.’

‘But disposable cups. Can’t we wait?’

‘‘Dour’ her Tom describes you as. Dour.’

‘That loser?’

‘Always angry.’

I hold out my tumbler for him to pour. The lock is still emptying. Trying to force the gates open before they’re ready would be a total waste of effort. We finish our drinks and climb back aboard. We steer the boat into the lock chamber and Dad refreshes our tumblers, making toast after toast as we rise amongst the jetsam.

 

 

Kathryn Aldridge-Morris is a writer from Bristol, UK. Her work appears in the Wigleaf Top 50, New Flash Fiction Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Bending Genres, Pithead Chapel, and Flash Frog, amongst others. Her stories have been nominated for Best Microfiction and the Pushcart Prize and she recently won Welsh publisher Lucent Dreaming’s flash contest and Manchester School of Writing’s QuietManDave Prize for flash fiction 2022. She tweets @kazbarwrites and you can read more of her work at www.kamwords.com.

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